Florence is an old, illustrious city. The center of empires– or the purse-strings at least.
It felt hard to get a real view of the city at first. We parked across the Arno, near the Roman wall, crossing town at a brisk pace in order to make our early reservation for the Galleria dell’Accademia. It was gritty, clouded, and largely deserted. There were flashes of the real city through alley corridors: piazzas dominated by large churches, courtyards glimpsed through an iron gate, but the main impression were those dark and winding alleys.
L’Accademia’s main draw is certainly Michelangelo’s David, which is more impressive in real life than the literature. No matter how many times you’ve read about the way that Michelangelo disproportionately sized elements, you can’t really understand it until you’ve seen the veins standing out in David’s enormous wrists, or his dilated pupils, clearly visible from a great height below.
The second most appealing exhibit was the art of trecento Florence, hidden in an upstairs set of rooms. I particularly like late medieval work, which maintains some of the premodern preciousness while hinting an experimentation with new modes. On the whole, L’Accademia was an aperitivo for Florence’s far grander collection at Gli Uffizi, our final destination for the day.
We hit two other major sites before lunch – L’ospedale degli Innocenti and San Lorenzo. The former is one of the first neoclassical building facades, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi for an orphanage. Even today, many Italians have the last name “Innocenti,” revealing a foundling progenitor.
San Lorenzo is another of Brunelleschi’s capolavori, representing a similar style with its pure geometry and grey local stone. While the staid appearance may have less impact than a medieval church, Brunelleschi was employing a radical new conception of aesthetic beauty 200 years before it became standard across Europe. He was a true visionary. Its still possible to see where he couldn’t quite maintain purist control, like the reliefs installed in the Old Sacristy or the effusive dome fresco, rising like a sun out of the cloudy pietra serena.
We were also glimpsing the first signs of the fabled Medici. Once you become aware, you can’t help but spot the heraldic palle (a reference to the “medicine” from which the family derives its name) everywhere, laying claim to Florence’s hidden beauties. Just as the dark alleys hint at the murderous conflicts of Florence’s leading families, the private chapels reflect their carefully constructed public faces. That tension appears to be the perfect recipe for truly great art.
Santa Maria Novella, the Dominican church, is just such an example. It is Italian before all else with its striped exterior frescoed interior. The main chapel is one of my favorites I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to be a little awed as seemingly living and breathing Florentines turn from the depicted public and domestic scenes to stare directly at the viewer. It’s a reminder that while worship was a civic enterprise, beauty in Florence has always been highly proprietary.
Finally it was time to see the treasures themselves at Gli Uffizi. I’ve never been to the Louvre, but I can only assume it is a similar experience. One room after another was filled with elements of the art history canon. I don’t think I’ve ever “stumbled across”so many instantly recognizable pieces. My favorite artists remain Botticelli, Simone Martini, and Filippo Lippi. I bought a poster of what I think to be one of the most beautiful depictions of the Madonna, which is in fact believed to be a portrait of the artist’s mistress:
We stepped outside for a minute on the balcony, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio close at hand, and the dome of the duomo not too far in the distance, reminders that while we’d made a good start, there was still much to see. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio on our way home, and old-fashioned bridge lined with shops and illuminated by holiday lights.
After that long day, it seemed appropriate to do a slightly less demanding trip the next day. Lucca is one of those cities frequently called a “hidden gem” by travel books, posing a challenge to Florence or Pisa. The nicest thing I can say it that it was one of the first places I’d been to in Tuscany that seemed truly livable. Still bound by ancient walls and spotted with Romanesque churches, the most prominent characteristic was still the number of families. We saw that was the case in the trattoria we stopped at. While it was highly recommended, the service was impossibly spastic. We were seated, served, and moved along with no shortage of errors, but possibly record time.
After that we visited a series of ancient churches. The church facades were from an artistic period I’d never seen before in real life, my favorite being San Giovanni, which we could actually go under into an archaeological underworld featuring everything from Roman bath mosaics to Lombardian graffitti. An equally suprising relic is il Volto Santo, a dark wood statue believed to have been carved by Nicodermus based upon the actual model of Jesus on the cross. In fact, it’s likely a replica based on an eighth century original, but it has been the object of pilgrimage for centuries. Lucca’s other features include a piazza built atop a Roman amphitheater, and a fully walkable city wall.
On the whole, I’m far more interested in what a Renaissance metropolis like Florence has to offer, but for the right people, Lucca is certainly worth the trip.